What can we learn from this decision?

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The May 25 decision of the government of Israel to ratify the roadmap is instructive in ways that go far beyond the immediate upshot of “launching” a new peace and stabilization process. That process, incidentally, is not likely in and of itself to bring peace. But it does reflect an important change in the strategic scenery.

The most important development reflected in the government’s ratification is the apparent decision by United States President George Bush to devote his prestige and energies to Arab-Israel peacemaking. Following upon two years of “hands off” policy toward the Arab-Israel conflict, this is a welcome development. Whether we have the Iraq war to thank, or British Prime Minister Blair’s pressure, or Bush’s own growing self-confidence as a statesman, we may never know. Nor is it clear how long and how intensively Bush intends to pursue and pressure for an Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But at least he has begun; without his involvement, there is simply no chance whatsoever under the present circumstances for progress to be registered. Without Bush’s role, Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) would not have been appointed; and without his pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Sharon, the roadmap would not have been ratified.

Bush’s involvement and virtual “ownership” of the roadmap (which, lest we forget, is technically a Quartet document), also mean that Washington is now, unequivocally, the center of Israel-Arab peacemaking. This is an important development for all interested parties. If the Israeli left, for example, wants to have some input into the process, it should focus its efforts on Washington before Jerusalem. And if the other three members of the Quartet, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations, want to continue to exercise influence, they are best advised to concentrate on keeping Bush in the process, rather than keeping Sharon or Abu Mazen involved.

A careful reading of the language of the government of Israel’s resolution ratifying the roadmap appears to indicate that nothing has changed in Sharon’s strategic approach. Unfortunately, this is good news for the Israeli right, which should recognize–despite its condemnations of Sharon–that the prime minister’s maneuvering represents their best chance to hold onto the settlements and avoid a productive peace process. And it is bad news for the forces of peace. Sharon’s current position is entirely consistent with his advocacy of a Palestinian “state” divided into enclaves that take up around 50 percent of the territories, and that does not involve the dismantling of settlements, which in his view serve a permanent strategic defensive purpose. Hence the only guarantee of additional progress under Sharon is pressure by Bush, and even that will become less productive the moment settlements become a central factor.

The Israel government’s decision ratifies “steps set out in the roadmap” rather than the roadmap itself, thereby reflecting Sharon’s insistence that the roadmap be sequential (beginning with Palestinian steps on security) rather than parallel (Israeli confidence-building measures, dismantling of outposts and freezing of settlements in parallel with Palestinian security measures), and that Israel has the right to pick and choose which demands it will comply with. This approach is reinforced by the “14 points” that the US is committed to “address”: while some are relatively benign, their overall thrust is to insist on Palestinian compliance first, and to refuse to accept roadmap foundations and demands, such as reopening Palestine Liberation Organization offices in Jerusalem and the Saudi/Arab League initiative of March 2002, that are politically or ideologically problematic for Sharon.

In view of the many reservations, disclaimers and nuances Sharon has attached to the roadmap, the most favorable development that we can now contemplate is fulfillment of phase I. This is no mean task, and could have an immensely beneficial effect on the way the Israeli and Palestinian publics alike view the notion of returning to a peace process. Above all, it will require Abu Mazen and his security chief, Mohammad Dahlan, to register quick and visible progress toward reducing Palestinian terrorism–lest a single suicide bombing with heavy Israeli casualties set back what little momentum the roadmap has developed. And it will require heavy pressure from President Bush on both Sharon and the Palestinians, along with assistance and support from friendly Arab states like Egypt and Jordan.

Assuming the Palestinians can deliver on security, then at some point not too far down the road Sharon will be abandoned by his right wing coalition partners and invite Labor into the coalition. If President Bush remains committed despite growing election constraints on his freedom of maneuver, we may, in the best case contingency, witness a dramatic stabilization of the situation in accordance with phase I.

That is the most we can hope for from the roadmap in the coming year and a half, until after elections in the US, and almost certainly as long as Yasir Arafat remains the Palestinian eminence grise and Ariel Sharon remains prime minister of Israel. But success in phase I could also precipitate welcome changes in both the Israeli and the Palestinian political leaderships.

Yossi Alpher is the author of the forthcoming book “And the Wolf Shall Dwell with the Wolf: The Settlers and the Palestinians.”

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